Using Art to Work with Community Groups

Identity Art Project, part 1

Last year, I had a terrific artist in residence project, the best of its kind. It had a reasonable budget with an open-minded French Immersion Director who told me, “The budget is approved; do what you want!” It was, for me, a dream project.

The objective was to highlight the students in the Immersion Program, showcasing the French immersion kids in their predominantly English language school. And, ultimately, to create a piece of artwork that would commemorate their experiences throughout the lifespan of the project.

It was a project without set boundaries; absolutely my favourite way to work! But it’s always a leap of faith to trust in my ability to discover the link between the ‘big idea’ and the pathway forward. The first question is always,  “Where do I start?” And then, “How do I get the rest of us on that pathway imagining our common goal?” The first few steps are pretty obvious: introduce myself to all the students and staff and give them an idea of what a project like this entails, and how it might unfold. So in every immersion class I presented a video about my artistic practice and a power point about the community and public art projects I had done in the past that might resemble what we could experience together.

But how would I get to know them? And how could I encourage them to be curious about the project and involved in its creation? I built a rolling cart with sides made of chalkboards, two mailboxes, a folding tabletop, and inside… a mirror. It would serve as a prop any time I needed students to come to me and contribute in one way or another to the project and to share information and fun facts about the project.

Prop in hand, I was ready to get to know the kids. I started with asking them some personal questions.  When you wake up in the morning, are grumpy or happy? What’s your favourite colour? What are you most afraid of? Who’s your favourite band?

Those surveys eventually comprised about 30 questions and continued for six weeks or so until I compiled statistics on 120 students and their teachers. I got to know them, but at the same time they were learning to really know one another.  

Then, as community project often unfold, the French Immersion Director came to me and suggested that my project might assist the francophone Theatre, Inook Touzin in creating a visual environment for the Molière tid bits our students would be performing.

Well, I thought, why not? It certainly fell under the objectives of the project, and being paired with a visual platform that had a built in audience was an excellent idea. However, by this point I knew those 120 students were, for the most part, more academic than artistic, and I only had 50 minutes with each group to get something done. How could we best work with Moliere? And then it came to me in a flash: Moliere already had the answer. His literary brilliance is in the caricatures he creates of his characters. We could learn from the Master; portraits would be the way forward! And as quickly as I solved that problem, my hopes were dashed when I had to admit that portraits are excruciatingly difficult to draw or paint.  

Marvin Mattelson writes a blog he’s titled, “Portrait Painting is More Difficult Than Brain Surgery”. He says that From the moment we’re born, we learn to recognize faces; it’s a lifesaving skill for a young human. As a result, all of us can easily recognize a bad portrait. We instantly know if does or does not look like the model. Then, another flash: but we’re not aiming for realism here. It’s Moliere. We’re going to create caricatures!

So the students drew portraits of one another other. The model sat directly in front of the artist, a vertical sheet of Plexiglas between them covered with a clear film. The artist drew onto the clear film, basically following the outlines of the model as accurately as possible. The portraits, for the most part, took about 20 minutes to draw; then the roles reversed and the model became the artist and the artist became the model. In one 50 minute class every student was caricatured well enough to look like his or her not-so good-looking cousin.

Finally the portraits were projected in the theatre along with the students’ responses to questions I’d asked. “My eyes are blue,” or “I’m most afraid of spiders,” or “If I could, I would put an end to hunger in the world.” Then, parents visiting the event had an opportunity to make portraits using the same technique, realizing how difficult it was to do, yet reserving judgement and, best of all, having as much fun as the kids did.

Stay tuned for my next blog, and I’ll tell you all about the next six months of this project and the creation of our temporary art installation….

 

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Breathe and watch your posture… or your painting will suffer!

I suppose every seasoned artist knows this, but it always comes as a surprise to my new students when I say, “Watch your posture and remember to breathe”.

Dream, 8″ x 8″ ink on paper

“And what does breathing and standing straight have to do with painting?” they ask. “A whole lot more than you might think,” I say. Painting is about being in the flow, finding a groove and letting the work manifest itself. It’s a place where our worries, our self-consciousness and our self-deprecation need to be set aside to leave room for unedited self-expression. Our bodies tend to carry all of our worries and negative emotions. Our muscles are tensed, our backs are slouched forward and we hold our breath too often, especially when concentration is required. All those can greatly affect the flow of your paintbrush and keep you stuck in an ineffective state of mind.

Breathing steadily and peacefully while painting helps you relax and bring your mind into a state of presence. It allows you to connect with your work, to see it better and to respond to it as it evolves. A painting isn’t something you can entirely plan ahead. You can make a few initial decisions, but after that, every brush stroke is a decision that is made in relation to what’s already on the canvas. So to make all these little decisions, you have to be present in every moment.  

Pensive, 8″ x 8″ ink on paper

Painting is as much a physical act as it is an intellectual process. One thing is abundantly clear: whatever you do with your body while you paint affects your intellectual process. Over the years I’ve noticed that whenever I have bad posture while painting, my mind goes to a place of impatience. I start rushing the work so I can get out of that uncomfortable position. Good posture, which is not the same as restful posture, is primordial to a sustained painting practice. If you want to be able to paint for hours on end, you need to learn to stand or sit the right way. Painting is an active state. You shouldn’t let your body be too comfortable. Your body needs to be engaged in the process. Personally, I paint standing up. This has a few advantages: it forces me to be physically engaged, it helps me keep a better posture and it saves me from getting lazy.

Every time I’ve tried painting from a sitting position, (usually because I’m tired), it didn’t work for me.   The simple truth is that I need to have my canvas standing straight up in front of me to avoid distortions of the image. I also need to be able to step away from the canvas frequently so I can get a complete view of the image. It’s so incredibly tempting for most of us to focus on one area of the canvas, forgetting the big picture. Painting sitting down can only work for really small formats where you have an easy overview of your work.

Second, I find that sitting induces a state of laziness that shows in the work. Although you never want to be in a rush to finish your work, you do want to keep yourself in an active enough state that motivates you to make all those small decisions that a painting requires.

Breathe, 8″ x 8″ ink on paper

And finally, sitting down is conducive to bad posture. If you are going to choose to paint sitting down, you need to be very mindful of what you do with your body and with your breath. It’s easy to slouch while sitting, but most of us don’t notice we are doing it. And poor posture in any position is conducive to poor breathing.

The art of manliness, in their blog titled The Ultimate Guide to Posture goes through the art of good posture very thoroughly. They talk about the benefits of good posture, and teach us how to achieve it while standing or sitting. And they provide corrective exercises to counter years of bad posture.

My advice? Take their advice: straighten up, breathe, and paint!

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Teaching Art…. a journey of unexpected rewards

Years ago, when I was just starting my artist journey, a neighbour asked if I would teach her son how to paint. I had never considered becoming an art instructor; I wanted to be an artist, not a teacher. But life has a way of putting things on your path that bring unexpected rewards.

I said yes to this neighbour’s request thinking, I should at least try it. That decision opened a beautiful and fulfilling side of my career as an artist. It rapidly took proportions I didn’t expect. And, go figure, I turned out to be a really good instructor, largely because I love teaching art and I love my students. Today I teach four after school classes a week, one or two adult classes and the occasional community workshop. I limit the numbers of hours I teach to 10 or 12 a week so I can preserve my creative studio time and, so I can always be excited to welcome my students.

Many of the kids I have taught over the years started with me at the age of nine and left when they moved out of town to attend university. And, I feel proud to share that as I am writing this, seven of my former students are studying art in post-secondary school. I believe that my students stay with me for a few reasons other than what I teach them: they know how much I appreciate them, they feel at ease in my studio and they get to work on projects they choose. Most studios or art instructors assign projects to their students. In addition to the insane amount of preparation this requires from the instructor, that way of teaching art doesn’t promote continuous learning.

The only way to become a good painter or drawer or sculptor is to keep doing it. Students rapidly tire of assigned projects and just stop going to class. By allowing them to choose the focus of their creative work, be it the subject or the form, I ensure that they will continue to feel the motivation to come back every week, year after year. That’s how many of them develop strong skills. This way of teaching demands flexibility and availability on the instructor’s part. I never know what my students will want to work on, so I need to be ready for anything. I hate to say no to a project and always want to find a way to make it come together. So I only take six students at a time. That way, I can easily afford to personalize my teaching for each student’s skill level and chosen project.

One of the things I knew an artist should do in order to maintain a life-long career is to build a community of people who appreciate and recognize their work. What I didn’t realize when I took that first teaching contract was that my students and their families would constitute a large part of that community. Because of them, I’ve never felt isolated or ignored. And more importantly, I always feel like I am contributing to the world by making other lives better and more fulfilled. Over the years I’ve received many beautiful testimonials from my students and from their parents that speak of the difference I have made in their lives. They say that I’ve been a positive and enriching presence and contributed to their personal and artistic development.

Two weeks ago I was presented with the Linda Knight Award for my contribution to the Elbow Valley community through art. I am proud of that award and thrilled that my personal passion for art has had so much positive impact on the people around me.

But, as they say, ‘there’s no such thing as a completely selfless act’. Teaching brings me a lot of satisfaction and allows me to keep up to date with the world. My teen students are my social media and technology tutors.  The kids keep me young and they help me see the world as they do, full of possibilities and wonders.

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Define Success

“The accomplishment of an aim or purpose; the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.” Oxford Dictionary. I can easily live with the first definition, but with the second… not so much.

When I moved to Calgary from Montreal 23 years ago, one of the things that struck me and made me rather uncomfortable was its culture of wealth. I was truly shocked by this obsession with money and possessions! As a child and young adult, I hadn’t seen people value others based on their financial status. In Calgary, it felt like that was mighty important and, for a while, I wondered if I should be concerned.

I eventually let it go, partly because, over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve met enough wealthy people to know that many of them don’t feel any more fulfilled and at peace than the rest of their fellow human beings. And, more to the point, as an artist, could I really afford to base my own value on how much money I make and how many people recognize me on the street? I don’t think so. That would be a sure way to contaminate my work with concerns that have nothing to do with art.

On Saturday, I attended a panel discussing the legacy of Alex Janvier and his group of indigenous Canadian artists. The subject of success came up and Jackson 2Bears, one of the panellists, asked, “Now what is success?” He went on to say “Success is to create meaningful work.”  And that’s the definition I can live with.

In her blog titled How Do You Define Success as an Artist? Lorie McNee shares the results of a survey she conducted with a group of artists. She categorized their responses in this way:
“Faith:  Conviction that they can produce what they envision, sense or get through a higher source.

Followers:  People who like their work enough to buy it or tell others about it.

Fame:  Publicity that draws attention to their work and attracts gallery dealers, art critics, museum curators and writers.

Fortune:  Income from selling enough work to support themselves comfortably without having any other source of income.”

Faith strikes me as encompassing creating meaningful work which is the foremost responsibility of an artist. Followers and Fame are about sharing your work with others, which I also consider one of the artist’s responsibilities. Fortune is a direct result of doing a good job at the first three points and should not be the artist’s main focus. When an artist spends too much time worrying about creating works that generate income, he gets lost. He wanders away from his own true voice. Of course we all need money, but the artwork should not be created with that as its sole purpose. There are many ways to finance an art career while your work takes its own sweet time creating a reputation that will eventually pay off. But remember: we’re artists. We can be creative in that aspect as well. For me, teaching art and working on community art projects feeds my personal art practice on many levels. And experiencing life outside the studio provides plenty of inspiration for studio work.

I still live in a society that over values money and possessions. But as an artist, I’ve had to learn to shove those concerns aside so I can create meaningful art because meaningful artwork doesn’t take root in greed. It takes root in experiencing the human condition and in the emotions that stem from that experience.

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I make objects

Well, I make art of course. But that often takes the form of a physical object that I introduce into the world. I do it because I need to. I need to work with my hands and to relate to an object while it’s taking form. And for those of us who, as my friend Doug Newell says, ‘just love making things’, there’s nothing else in life that’s more satisfying.

Sculptures in progress, limited editions of 25

However, as a person who is trying to be mindful of how our society contributes to the constant assault on our fragile planet, I wonder sometimes whether it’s actually a good thing to add more objects to it?

I’m also just coming out of a massive de-cluttering of my own home. The house is big and we’ve been here for 20 years, and now the boys are grown and they’re leaving the nest. So, over the past six months, I’ve been dealing with all the accumulated stuff and wondering why I had it all in the first place. Should I keep all these objects? I gave a lot of them away to friends and family who expressed interest but, to be honest, now I actually can’t even recall what they were. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I mustn’t have taken much care in selecting all that stuff in the first place.

Sometimes I make computer images for project applications and it’s occurred to me that it might be a good way to create art without cluttering the world. But I’m afraid that way of working just doesn’t feel real to me – neither the process nor the result. For one thing, it doesn’t provide the joy of physically working with my hands. I love the way my back, my arms and my legs are engaged when I work. I love the way my breath responds to my body’s motion as it’s totally absorbed in the creative process. The idea of sitting in front of a screen for the day actually makes me feel sick to my stomach. I would have no relationship with the physical materials I love. Whether it’s paint or clay, paper, wood, plaster or glass, each one is unique and provides its own possibilities and limitations. So I know for sure that computer graphics will never be the answer for me as an artist. I think I need to remain in the physical world and to keep creating objects.

Finished sculptures and limited edition silk screen art.

But how do I maintain peace with the fact that creating objects is what I do? This morning I came across something about being mindful of the impact of the objects we buy or create have on others. And that simple statement provided me a sense of relief. I know that the artwork I create is invested with care and consciousness. I know that I’m present in the process of creating. I know that each curve, each colour and each subject is calling to me to be there, and that I listen. I listen to the work as it unfolds and I follow its lead. I’m a slow, thoughtful painter and sculptor who doesn’t mass produce, simply because each work needs its own time and deserves my attention for as long as it wants it. I usually have three or four pieces on the go at once. It permits me the freedom to pause for a while on one specific work while continuing on another, and affords enough time for whatever was puzzling me to reveal its own answers.

I realize that the trend now is to paint fast. It’s all over Pintrest: fast paintings that can be produced in just a couple of hours. And unfortunately it’s also encouraged by the commercial gallery system. They want their artists to mass produce, so they can rotate their stock and sell it at very reasonable prices. Although I have nothing against those fast paintings – some of them are excellent – I don’t want to work that way. In a fast moving world where an over abondance of carelessly made objects are created, I claim the right to be a slow artist. I claim the right to produce a limited number of art works every year and to put care and time into each of them. I claim the right to release into the world only objects that I feel will have a positive impact on those who will end up with them.

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This is my friend, she is an artist!

I’m always surprised when someone introduces me as: “This is my friend Patsy; she’s an artist”. No one introduces their friend as: “This is John; he’s an accountant”. It’s as though when one is an artist, the person and what he does for a living are inseparable.

Me at work

I understand why the artist herself would feel like her identity is profoundly linked to her work. After all, she’s on journey that forces her to figure out who she is so she can one day contribute original, personal work to the world. As authors David Bayles and Ted Orland attest in their wonderful book Art and Fear, “…becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.” And of course, as an artist, one is always on the clock, because everything she looks at and experiences is material for creativity.

But here’s what puzzles me: why would other people feel that my work and my name must be linked and announced at the first introduction? Not that I really care, mind you. I love talking about my work. In fact I’m a little ashamed to admit that I often do it until I notice that people around me are looking for a way out of the artsy conversation. But it’s intriguing that others feel my identity revolves around my work. After all, artists are ordinary people with ordinary concerns and ordinary lives. Aren’t they?

Me at work

This may be a sign of our times, and related to a general cultural view of what it means to be an artist. As Bayles and Orland go on to say, “… in the past few centuries Western art has moved from unsigned tableaus of religious scenes to one-person displays of personal cosmologies.” It used to be that the artist who created the work was irrelevant. Art existed long before human beings managed to over value their sense of self. I can’t imagine a cave dweller drawing an animal on a stone wall and exclaiming, “This is my work; it represents who I am and no one else.” Now, though, ‘artist’ has become a form of identity.

I’m convinced that our society has over inflated the importance of the ‘self’, the ‘me’, and the ‘I’. Social media reminds us of that fact daily. In reality, none of us really matters other than to the people who love us. And although I agree that the only way to create meaningful work as an artist is through finding your own self-expression, it’s never truly new or personal. And that’s simply because all of us are shaped by the world we live in. I doubt that any one of us can claim to be the only human being to have ever felt a certain emotion or experienced a certain thing. So, as an artist, whatever we create is always a result of a shared experience relevant to the time we live in, nothing more and nothing less. Maybe we manage to represent life in a way that is new enough to reach people at a deeper level, but that is as much as we can hope to achieve, and it’s good enough to be worth spending a lifetime working at it. Whatever recognition that may or may not come from the work we do is irrelevant and stands separate from the work itself. Personally though, I hope that time will prove that my work has been more important than I am.

Artists are flawed human beings aspiring to create pure work. Unfortunately, fear is often a major setback when one links one’s self to their work. “Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when you make no art, you are no person at all!” So from an artist’s perspective, it’s better to not feel that “I am my own work” even though we work all the time.

$1,175.00

L’éveil, Acrylic on canvas

My experience also tells me that the artist’s ego too often gets in the way of the creative process. The best way to create is to remove all preconceived ideas, controlling forces, and grand aspirations from the process and to put yourself at the service of the work. You need to be, as much as possible, an anonymous servant to the art so it will emerge and guide you where it wants to go. Your own natural inclinations and the effects of your experiences will emerge naturally without having to forcefully push them through.

Maybe some acquaintances feel that having an artist in their social group is cool and it improves their social status. In my case, though, I’m pretty sure that my friends don’t really care what I do. I’ve known them a very long time and they’re not that shallow. They just love me – no matter what I do. So they’re free to introduce me as they please – just as long as they’re willing to put up with me talking about my work.

 

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Are you a painter, a sculptor or both?

Summer is finally here, and with it comes the very precious daydreaming time I need to let my work flow freely. Paintings to create, sculptures to finish and mould, and an installation project to put together; those are my summer work plans. And as I reflect on them, looking at the steps each requires, I realize how very different but, at the same time, how very similar they are. To me, they’re different in the creative process but very similar in their spirit.

The Rocker, limited edition of 25, hydrostone gypsum cement, 6″ x 6 1/2″ x 5″

Many artists consider themselves either painters or sculptors, but rarely both. I play with all of it because each way of working provides its own reward and allows a fresh perspective from which to visit an idea. Painting offers me a place of further freedom simply because a blank canvas offers an opportunity to create a new world. Sculpture, on the other hand, tends to present more ‘material’ limitations. In fact, the level of ‘limitation’ varies for each material. Glass, for example, is a very bossy material that comes with precise rules one must abide by. But if you can put up with its neediness, it’s one of the richest, most dignified materials to cast. Clay is more forgiving, but it’s still not as free flowing as painting.

Larry Cornett, in his blog titled When it comes to creativity, are you a sculptor or a painter? approaches the subject this way: “Painters visualize and place their dream on the canvas. It can be anything they want. A purple cat? No problem. Clocks that melt and drape over tree branches? But of course! If they can imagine it, it can be. Sculptors have to be much more realistic about what can be brought forth from the stone. A granite block cannot reveal a fluttering red feather boa. There are limitations imposed by the material and the tools.”

The lovers, limited edition of 25, hydrostone gypsum cement 5 1/2″ x 5″ x 2 1/2″

And what about installation work? It can be anything you want, but it focuses on occupying a space. In that sense, the choice of material is guided by what is relevant for the space. Wikipedia defines it as “An artistic genre of three-dimensional works that often are site-specific and designed to transform the perception of a space.” The installation I’m focusing on this summer is the final step of a community engagement project I’ve been working on since September. I will elaborate on it in a future blog sometime soon when I’ve seen the final product as well as the interaction of the community group with it. What I want to say for now is that creating an installation is an opportunity to focus on a concept, and share an idea by using materials that will best convey that concept. In other words: the idea comes first. The choice of material, second.

Communion, limited edition pf 25,hydrostone gypsum cement, 8″ x 8″ x 6″

 

After 20 years as an artist, I know I’m comfortable with, and even excited about, working with a variety of materials and techniques, but I realize that some might fear that this risks creating confusion. In my case it’s coherent with what I’m trying to express. All my current work has a common underlying spirit that is true to the way I want to exist in this wonderful world. Each piece flows with life and speaks of entanglement with each other and with our environment, no matter what the material!

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The Status of the Artist:

Everyone can draw, some of us very well. Some not so well. Does that mean that everyone is an artist? No, it certainly does not.

Pulse 2, acrylic 24″ x 30″

I recently attended a discussion in Calgary about The Status of the Artist, along with professional artists from various art practices including dance, theater, writers and visual artists. We were all invited to contribute our views on ‘What is an Artist?’, ‘How do We Contribute to our Society?’ and ‘What is Our Place and Role in that Society?’ Our goal was to provide information to the Alberta Government so it can develop Status of the Artist Legislation. I was eager to attend because I saw it as a first step toward an official recognition of the artists’ contribution to society and a foundation for improving the living conditions of artists. Most are still living below, or very close to, the poverty level. And no, it’s not because they’re disorganized and lazy. Well, maybe some of us are, but not in larger numbers than what you will find in any other field of work.

So? What … and who… is an artist?

There was no problem getting the discussion started; artists are passionate and devoted to their practices and the conversation was animated and interesting since many of us have very similar challenges and concerns. Most of us feel that the term ‘artist’ is used pretty loosely in our society, and that the actual profession of being an artist is not viewed as a very serious endeavor. But I guarantee that for those of us who devote our lives to the practice and understanding of an art form, it is serious and meaningful work. Maybe we should call ourselves ‘Professional Artists’. But would we ask the same of doctors and lawyers? Of course not.

Pulse 1, 30″ x 40″

Perhaps the ‘Artist’ title encompasses too many ‘hobby artists’ – those who like to do a little creative dabbling on weekends to unwind from the work that supports them financially. They may dream of one day chucking the job that supports them and being called an artist, but my advice would be to read my blog titled Naively Optimistic. In that blog I write about the challenges of being a ‘Professional Artist’. It might put a damper on some of that daydreaming.

Anyone can be creative, but that’s not what makes an artist. We need to do a better job at recognizing the training, the work ethic, the experience and the professional presentation of the work that needs to happen before one can call himself a ‘Professional Artist’. Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Outliers has popularized the expression “10 thousand hours”, the average number of hours one needs to invest in something before becoming good at it. Anyone who has attempted to be an artist will confirm that it takes hard work and dedication to become a competent and confident artist. Painting two hours a week and selling pieces to neighbours and friends doesn’t make anyone a professional artist.

Pulse 1, 30″ x 24″

Daniel Grant, in his blog titled How do you Define ‘Artist declares, “As opposed to other occupations that require a license, permits, state testing or even reported income, the label artist seems more like a value judgment….” He goes on to list a number of things that can be considered criterias required for someone to be called an artist:

an artist makes art. Yes they do, as much as they possibly can.

– an artist declares artistic revenues as their main source of income. Not always. A lot of professional artists hold separate jobs that support their artistic practice. But they should at least take themselves seriously enough to declare all their art related revenus.

an artist professionally presents their work to the public. Yes, they do. And that’s a critical part of a professional process. As an artist you must be challenged by how people perceive your work. It helps further your development and reflection no matter what the public’s reaction might be. And even though most artists start by presenting their work in non-professional contexts, (the church art sale for instance), they should rapidly move to jury-selected or curated shows to validate their professional status.

– an artist requires a studio or a professional working space. I have yet to meet a professional artist who doesn’t have a space dedicated to the creation of their work.

an artist is someone whom funding agencies call an artist. And there it is: the ultimate validation. Is the person eligible to receive public funds to pursue their career as an artist? Hard earned money from the tax payer cannot be carelessly distributed and therefore requires some serious boundaries as to who is a professional artist and who is not. The Canada Council for the Arts defines a professional artist as follows:

  • has specialized training in the artistic field (not necessarily in academic institutions)
  • is recognized as a professional by his or her peers (artists working in the same artistic tradition)
  • is committed to devoting more time to artistic activity, if possible financially
  • has a history of public presentation or publication.

And Grant’s final criteria is:

an artist is someone who calls themselves artist.

If you have read this and still feel confident calling yourself an artist, then go for it. But keep in mind that ‘Professional’ artists in your town, province and country work tirelessly to maintain their status, do you?

For those of you who would like to contribute your thoughts on the Alberta Artist Status, you can do so till June 30th 2018 though this Alberta Foundation for the Arts survey.

 

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Connecting Children With Nature Through Art

Laurent, doing what ever boys do!

As my kids were growing up, I encouraged them to roam free close to our home, where they had access to 600 acres of untouched nature full of treasures waiting to be discovered. Birds defending their nesting territory high in the trees, frogs basking in the pounds, and creeping bugs scurrying through the long grasses endlessly fascinated those little boys. They collected wasps’ nests, mushrooms, sticks and stones, and played in the mud pit knowing they would have to be washed in cold water with the garden hose once they got back home.

At the time, I did realize that most of my neighbours’ children weren’t permitted to ‘free range’. Many young parents collectively decided that outdoors was out-of-bounds. They had become convinced that nature was a risky place. But because my most precious childhood memories have to do with being in nature without adult supervision, I know deep in my soul that this generation of children is being deprived of one of childhood’s greatest pleasures. And that is just a shame.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder, meaning, according to Wikipedia, “…that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioural problems.” 

Joshua, always climbing!

Louv affirms, “Today’s children now know more about the wildlife of the Amazon rainforest than they do about their own backyard.” He argues that “… sensationalist media coverage and paranoid parents have literally scared children straight out of the woods and fields, while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favours ‘safe’ regimented sports over imaginative play.”

Statistics show that children now spend, on average, less than 30 minutes outdoors after their school days. This even though spending more time outside, ideally in nature, improves kids’ physical and psychological health, and makes them more environmentally conscientious. In a world where humankind is endangering more and more species with its lack of care for the environment and its constant pressure on natural resources, I believe we all have a responsibility to introduce children to what we are at risk of losing. How can we protect and care for nature if we have no idea what lives around us? If we never feel the joy and wonder of interacting with nature, won’t we forget that we’re an integral part of nature, not separate from it, not superior to it? Our specie, as all others, is dependant upon the natural world, so it’s imperative that we respect it and develop a deeper love for it.

My boys are all grown up now but, sadly, many of my teenage art students are still not permitted to walk by themselves on the paths by the creek in my community, let alone to wonder around in the forest.

When several of those students asked whether I’d organise a summer art camp for them, I resisted the idea at first.   Why? Well, I suppose I have to admit that I jealously guard those precious summer weeks. We have so few of them here in Canada and I cherish the time I spend outside, creating my art and connecting with nature. But then, three years ago, I finally got excited about its potential.

Photo credit Jean Wallace

The idea of a Summer Nature Art Camp made me happy! I could take kids out into those 600 acres and encourage them to explore and daydream and create art. It was an idea definitely worth a couple of precious summer weeks. I’d still get to be outside and do art. But for those two weeks I could share the experience with kids who, for the most part, have never had an opportunity to spend that many hours in nature all at once.

Making clay faces during summer nature art camp.

Last year, on the first day of Camp, as we settled down for lunch under the welcome shade of magnificent spruce trees, an eight-year-old burst into tears. I asked her what was wrong and she said “My mom told me this camp was in your back yard, but now we’re lost in the forest!” I hugged her, trying to stifle my giggle because we were barely 15 minutes from my studio, and I reassured her that we weren’t lost at all. “This is where Cisco takes me for a walk every day and we’re perfectly safe.” By the end of the week, this little girl had survived ant bites and learned to pee in the woods. Plus, she had discovered the wonderful gifts that nature offered her and had used them to create her own works of art.  

Although the Camp is adult supervised, those who know me are aware that I am far from being a controlling person. Of course I make sure the kids are safe. But I also give them lots of choice about where we explore each day, and at what pace we do it. And I’m certainly not opposed to a few bug bites and stinging nettles along the way. It’s all part of the experience and it gives the kids more stories to tell when they get home to exhibit their artistic creations.

 

 

 

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Learning to be Afraid: becoming an artist

Broken, oil on canvas, 30″ x 24″

I recently saw a friend’s post on Instagram about being afraid and working through it, and since then I’ve been thinking about the time in my life 20 years ago when I had to overcome my own fear. But I’m pretty sure, that at some point in our lives, we all have to make difficult choices with uncertain outcomes, and that that process can be justifiably frightening. Sometimes, though, those fears can be overwhelming.

Life has been pretty peachy for me so far but, like everybody else, I have felt deep fear, and in some cases it felt like it was for no particular reason at all. Let’s face it: no lion has ever threatened to eat me! However, those nameless, faceless fears still find a way to bore into my head once in a while.

I decided to become a full time artist more than 20 years ago, when my first child was about two years old, when I started a day-home simply because I couldn’t imagine having to drag my own children to daycare every day. (Please know that I have tremendous respect for all the parents out there that have maintained a ‘real’ job while having babies. It’s not an easy task; it just wasn’t for me.)

Once the boys became less demanding, I figured that becoming a full time artist would allow me to keep working from home. But, above all, it was what I had always dreamed of for myself. At first, I was incredibly excited! I was going to embark on my lifelong dream and spend my time creating works of art. But a couple weeks into it – just about the time my former self would have been expecting that first paycheque for a ‘real’ job well done – fear arrived and made itself at home.  I was terrified.  I had no idea what I was doing, how to go about it, or what decisions to make that would at least generate an income that could pay for paint and canvases. Yeah, I know. Poor planning.

The colour of fear, oil on canvas, 24″ x 36″

But in my defence, I really felt that if I didn’t jump into it, I’d never make it happen. Nevertheless, as I realized the magnitude of the uncertainty I had created for myself, I started having daily panic attacks. They would always come in the evenings as I was getting tired, when I knew I had to make a decision. Then a very clever old lady told me, “No matter what you do, one morning you will open your eyes and it will be your 40th birthday. You can wake up as an artist or as something else you don’t really want to be. It’s up to you.” Clearly I had only two options. I could give up my dream and go back to a steady pay cheque with a predictable work path, or, I could stick with it and find a way through the anxiety.

Somehow I knew then I had to push through those panic attacks, so I thought I would organize myself around them. I stopped fighting, and instead welcomed them every day.  I made sure I was set up comfortably on the couch with a blanket, a glass of water and whatever I thought I would need, so I wouldn’t have to move. I tried to focus entirely on the panic attack. And when the waves of shivers and worries came over me, I sank deep into them.  I tried to feel them moment by moment, in every part of my body. I observed them, even if it was uncomfortable.  And, eventually, I came to love them.  

Diffusion, oil on board, 48″ x 48″

It felt that the more I relaxed into the fear, and surrendered to all the physical sensations that came with it, the more I felt a deep connection to the world.  Sometimes, flashes of clarity would appear unexpectedly.  Those felt like precious tidbits of knowledge I needed at that moment – precious life lessons I could put to use right away in my work and in my personal life.

Eventually, as I found a routine with my work, and the first stable sources of income came out of the work I did, I grew out of the panic attacks. With the help of my husband, who is a pro at organizing work and immensely supportive of what I do, I created a structure for my work, some goals, and a way of working that brought enough peace to keep me going. Since then, things have come together nicely and my work is largely fear free. Now I can use whatever fear that creeps back into my life as a source of inspiration for my artworks.

Today, those early anxiety attacks are all a distant memory. But my young friend’s instagram post encouraged me to remember and share my early experiences after I published last week’s blog “Naively Optimistic”. Maybe I wasn’t so naïve after all. Maybe I had a sense that being an artist would be more than a job; that it would become my life’s journey because none of the work we do as artists is done on the surface. It demands deep introspection and recognition of what life presents us.

More change will come in my life. I’m certain of that. In fact it’s just about the only thing that I am certain of! My hope is, that in the face of uncertainty to come, I will have enough wisdom to surrender to it once again, and to make the most of it, using the energy it will stir to create meaningful artwork.

 

 

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